Ashley M. Jones seemed to know almost immediately after being invited to join me here at LE that she wanted to talk about Lucille Clifton. Her certainty made me smile then and her confident answers to my questions since have drawn me in and made me want to hear more. In our chat, she covered important ground, discussing the way that good poems pursue you, the volumes that can be packed into two lines, desire, the sonnet, Black women, the patriarchy, and so much more.
Black: Why did you choose Lucille Clifton?
Jones: I will always, always, always choose Clifton. She has become a poet-mother to me, speaking to me through the page, and, thankfully, through videos of her reading and discussing her work. I chose these poems specifically because they’ve been on my mind—that’s what good poetry should do. It should haunt you in the most delicious way—to be pursued by a poem is one of my life’s greatest joys.
Clifton has a way of opening life up to its deepest, most honest truth, and that’s one reason why I love her work. I feel like I am, simultaneously, seen and instructed.
Black: And why these poems specifically?
Jones: So, “sorrows” is a poem I just recently discovered. I have Clifton’s collected works, and although I’ve read many of the poems, I have not read them all—this is on purpose. I’m not usually a cover-to-cover poetry book reader—I like to find something new each time I open the book. I like to linger on a poem and return and return and return.
With Clifton’s collected works, it’s no different—because there will never be new work, I have to savor what’s here, meander through the pages at my own pace. So, I found “sorrows.” I think I was looking for an example of a poem for an intro to creative writing class I’m teaching, and that poem jumped out because it illustrated what poems can do that prose cannot, but the content was also so right-on—again, good poems pursue you in this way, like angels, swooping into whatever you’re feeling—so I kept thinking about it.
Sorrow is an emotion many of us know well, but the way Clifton describes it opens it anew. The conceit is that sorrows are like dark angels, leeching onto mortals, falling in love with us. The difference, according to Clifton, between sorrow and desire (or a desire to be desired, even by sorrow) is so slight, we can barely recognize it. That take on sorrow is the most accurate, I think. It is true that to be sad is a deep a commitment, at least in my life, as it is to be in love or loved by someone. It’s a powerful relationship.
“Black Women” has been on my mind for a long, long time. It describes, succinctly, what Black women have given and given up, what place we’re told we hold in society. It tells an entire history of Black womanhood in America in just sixteen lines.
Black women are expected, required, to be Strong and Dependable and Able To Nurse An Entire Nation of Men, but we are not, have not, been valued as sexual (not sexualized—we have been overly sexualized, our sexuality has been and is still misunderstood and misnamed) or as delicate or as worthy of affection.
This country, this patriarchy, won’t allow our strength to fold into vulnerability. It began during slavery—we had to make ourselves undesirable to the masters who raped and raped. We lifted up the Black men so they might survive the daily emasculation they faced, but in that lifting, we endured the way the white patriarchy found its way into our men’s fists and words against us. All of this, for survival in a country in which we were never meant to survive.
Black: This line in “Black Women”: America made us heroines / not wives. is one that I know many return to. Would you open it up for us, discuss it a little?
Jones: This line, and the line that follows: “we hid our ladyness / to save our lives” resonates so deeply with me.
It not only explains, as I’ve said, the history of Black women in America, but it speaks to the way we’re seen today, too. America made us heroines—let’s look at that first.
It would seem, at first, that being distinguished as a heroine is a good thing—it means you’re strong, you’re smart, you save people. Yes, those things are true. But a heroine often has no duality, and we know from our own human experience that we’re full of nuance and duality and contradiction and complexity. But that distinction as heroine leaves little room for nuance.
Harriet Tubman, for example, is hailed (rightly so) as one of the great American Heroes of all time. She was strong, smart, brave, and a lover of her people. Nowhere in that story is there room for her to be soft, fragile, vulnerable, desirable and capable of desire. Yes, we learn that she was married but when we look at how people think of her today, it is never in terms of her whole personhood. This is part of the reason I decided to write about her in my new collection—I wanted her to become more than just that one side we see in history books.
Not wives—again, a heroine is a heroine. She’s not desired for anything but the help she can bring. Mammy is an example of this. Like Tubman—and yes, there’s a larger conversation to be had regarding this comparison between Mammy and Harriet Tubman, but go with me here first—Mammy was a savior. She saved the Good Missus from having to deal with wailing, writhing white babies. She knew just how to raise them so they’d leave their mothers alone. She was the best cook this side of heave—-working away in the Big House on dinners her family could only dream about. She was utterly unsexual—nothing but jolly darkness lived beneath her skirts. No rouge for her cheeks. No curls in her hair, just a headscarf and a big, friendly smile.
Although we are neither Tubman nor Mammy now, this expectation for Strong Black Womanhood still exists. And, we, statistically, the least desired (again, this is a waaaaaay larger and more nuanced conversation—I’m just going off of statistics) by men.
Our attributes are praised when anyone else but us has them—Kylie Jenner’s lips, the Kardashians’ claim to have invented du-rags, cornrows, box braids, you name it. Our strength is depended upon, even on a statewide scale—they tell us Black women saved the election between Doug Jones and Roy Moore here in my home state of Alabama. But so many of us face this issue of not being seen as potential romantic partners. That’s what that line drums up for me. All of that in just two lines! Clifton at her best.
Black: What is the connection, if any, to your own work in that of Clifton’s?
Jones: I hope there is every connection between my work and Clifton’s. I aspire to her brevity and precision, and although I am far from mastering it, I think I draw closer each time I take to the page.
I also aspire to her powerful vulnerability. Clifton is always authentic in her poems—there’s a certain humanity you can feel rising up from the page. But there’s also this sharpness, this undeniable power. She is showing the nuance, the complexity of Black womanhood in each piece she writes. I hope that’s coming through in my pieces—that’s what I try to create in each poem.
Black: You have so much going on, it’s hard to know what to ask you about. What are you working on now?
Jones: Right now, I’m writing a new collection of poems, preparing for the 2019 Magic City Poetry Festival, and trying to be the best teacher to my high school and college kiddos.
The new collection started as a study of Gwendolyn Brooks—her formal poems spoke to me, and her ability to write such biting critiques of American society in an often neat and tidy package (here, I mean form, rhyme, and the sometimes sugary nature of her language) was so appealing that I had to try it for myself! So, I started to write exclusively in the sonnet form, and although I’m still mostly writing in sonnets, this project has become more of an exploration in how deeply I can dig into my own well of emotion and experience to pull up poems that, like Brooks’, simultaneously disarm and alarm the reader.
I’m thinking, specifically, of “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed.” This poem is a traditional ballad. It has a nursery rhyme feel, but it explores the horrors of American life for a Black family. This poem disarms through the neat packaging but delivers its alarming punch in the content. I’m playing with that. What can a sonnet (or near-sonnet) hold that it has not held before? How can I continue the work Brooks (and so many others—Patricia Smith, Wanda Coleman, Terrance Hayes) continue to do in formal work (or, new forms, or even free verse), to open up the canon and create space for marginalized experiences to be lifted up to the heights of the “classics” we study.
A sonnet, you see, is undeniably “artistic” and “important” if it’s written by Shakespeare. What happens when you use that form, that undeniably “art-worthy” form, to talk about lynchings in America?
The Magic City Poetry Festival is a celebration of poetry and place, and I am its founding director. Our second festival is slated for April 2019, and we are working working working on securing grant funding to create an even bigger festival than we had last year. We want Birmingham to become a literary destination, and that takes WORK. If any of you readers are nearby Birmingham come April, we’d love to see you at our events (they’re all and always free)!
Thank you, Ashley.
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of 14 books of poetry including the last, The Collected Works of Lucille Clifton published posthumously in 2012, 10 children’s books, and many more. Clifton received a number of prestigious awards in her lifetime including the Ruth Lilly, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Coretta Scott King Award, the National Book Award, and more. Clifton served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including UC Santa Cruz, St. Mary’s, and Columbia. In 2006 Clifton was a fellow at Dartmouth. From 1979-1985 Clifton served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland.
Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press and is forthcoming in February 2019. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is Second Vice President of the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the .in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the , Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, The Sun, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, and The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She received a and a . Her second collection, dark / / thing,
Links to the good stuff:
Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore. For Sundress Publications she organizes the Poets in Pajamas reading series and Lyric Essentials.